- Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, plans to fly a Japanese billionaire around the moon in 2023 inside a new rocket ship.
- But the launch system, called Big Falcon Rocket, is ultimately designed to colonize Mars.
- In September 2016 and 2017, Musk revealed new details and updates about his Mars colonization plan at the annual International Astronautical Congress.
- IAC organisers hope Musk will return this year, but they don’t know if he is coming.
On Monday, Elon Musk revealed the identity of SpaceX’s first lunar space tourist and shared new details about the company’s next-generation launch system, called the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR for short).
BFR is ultimately designed to colonize Mars. In September 2016, Musk debuted his vision for landing cargo and people on the red planet at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC): an annual gathering of spaceflight experts, agency heads, and industry executives. He then provided an update on this plan at that same meeting in September 2017.
The tacit expectation among fans of SpaceX is that Musk will return to the next IAC, which the University of Bremen in Germany is hosting from October 1-5 – just two weeks from now.
But conference organisers say they haven’t heard from Musk about whether or not he plans to come.
“Maybe he’s coming this year, or maybe he’s not,” Annika Teubner, a University of Bremen spokesperson who’s involved in this year’s IAC meeting, told Business Insider.
Musk did not respond to Business Insider when asked if he plans to attend IAC 2018. SpaceX did not respond until after this story was published, saying Musk is not currently scheduled to present (which is apparent from the IAC program) and did not immediately respond to a follow-up request to confirm or deny his future attendance.
SpaceX will have some presence at the conference, though: Hans Koenigsmann, the company’s vice president of build and flight reliability, is scheduled to host an hour-long IAC forum on October 3.
But Koenigsmann’s work is focused on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program for transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The description of his event on the IAC website doesn’t mention Mars at all.
“We spoke to Hans Koennigsman, and of course we asked him if Elon is coming,” Teubner said. “But he couldn’t answer.”
What we know about SpaceX’s Mars plans, so far
The International Astronautical Federation co-organizes the IAC meeting each year and describes it as “the world’s premier global space event” and “the one time of the year when all space actors come together.” Several thousand of the top figures in spaceflight attend each year, making it the perfect venue to present to powerful figures in the industry.
During Musk’s September 2016 talk at IAC, he said the BFR system would have two parts: a Big Falcon Booster to heave it off the ground, and a Big Falcon Spaceship that would ride on top – and into orbit around Earth.
From there, the gigantic and fully reusable spaceship would be refilled with fuel and blast off to Mars, delivering cargo, crew members, or both to the red planet’s surface. To get home, the crew will fill their ship with fuel manufactured from sunlight, Martian water, and Martian air.
Musk returned to IAC in September 2017. Compared to the BFR in his previous talk, the spacecraft was about 50 feet shorter and its payload capabilities scaled back by about 50%. Nevertheless, it was designed to be 35 stories tall and – if successfully built – ship up to 150 tons of supplies and 100 people to the surface of Mars at a time.
Musk also shared an “aspirational” goal to launch the first uncrewed cargo missions in 2022, followed by the first crewed missions in 2024.
SpaceX engineers are already working to make that happen. Under a tent at the Port of Los Angeles, they’re building a prototype of the system’s spaceship out of advanced carbon-fibre composites. Musk even showed off a 30-foot-diameter section that will likely go into a prototype of the spaceship.
Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer,said on September 6 that the first spaceship prototype may be hopping around the company’s Texas-based rocket test facility in late 2019.
What Musk might present at IAC 2018 – if he goes
On Monday, Musk revealed a major update to the BFR: the booster-and-spaceship system is now slated to be 387 feet tall, and the ship will have wings that will also serve as landing legs. Musk described the new version as “final,” but didn’t give new details about his long-term Mars plan.
It is still unknown how SpaceX’s ship might withstand the punishment of spaceflight, and how it is supposed to be powered. (Some renderings show deployable, fan-like solar panels but not where they are stored.) It’s also still not clear (likely not even to SpaceX) how crews might survive on the first mission, which technologies and supplies they’d bring with them, and what, exactly, they’d do on the Martian surface after arriving there.
Even the ship’s interior design – which dictates the amount of supplies, equipment, and people it could ferry to Mars – isn’t settled. Musk said on Monday that SpaceX still only has “some concepts” for the internal configuration.
These are just a few areas ripe for more explanation from Musk.
“They seem to have tackled a huge aspect of it – the rockets, the propulsion, the landing,” Ray Wheeler, an advanced life support researcher at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, previously told Business Insider. “But having an efficient and appropriate habitat for the human, reliable life-support systems, the right spacesuits, and so on? That all demonstrates the complexity of this whole idea.”
But there is a sign Musk might show up: A visual presentation that he gave during SpaceX’s moon-mission announcement on Monday is similar in appearance and organisation to his two previous IAC talks. The company also recently hosted a workshop with NASA and industry experts to discuss what’s needed to make a crewed Mars mission happen.
Teubner said that if Musk does decide to attend, the IAC 2018’s Twitter feed is the place to look for that news.
“If we know about Elon that will be the channel we use to announce it,” Teubner said.
Correction: We removed part of a quotation that mischaracterized Musk’s participation in IAC 2017 as possibly “very spontaneous.” It was actually planned months in advance.
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